Sunday, September 20, 2009

No Money No How

By Brian Polk

You can tell how broke you are by how low you're willing to let your bank account go before you start worrying. Back when I was making the big bucks ($20,000 a year), my brain would swell with anxiety if my account wandered below the $100 mark. During this last year, it was $20. Currently, I have $9.62 in my account and I'm confident that I can get at least another meal out of it before it hits zero. That's because I make no money and I'm poorer than I've ever been in my entire life.

And it's weird, because I'm also happier than I've ever been in my entire life. I'm in a great mood most of the time. I don't totally hate my job (though I do pretty much hate it, which is actually a marked improvement in the story of my life). I don't spend all my time wishing I were dead. I'm listening to all my old punk rock records and loving every minute of them. For once, it feels good to be alive.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work, is it? There’s supposed to be this apparent parallel between money and happiness; that is, if you have an abundance of the former, you will have the latter in spades. My own observations and experience, however, have dictated quite the opposite: the more money I earn, the more I worry about spending it on shit I don’t need. Then I spend it all on shit I don’t need. And I end up with piles of possessions that don’t enhance or benefit my life in any way. Eventually I say to myself, “You make so much money and have all these nice things and you’re still not happy. WTF, dude. WTF.” (Actually this last part isn’t true. I would never speak in acronyms. The rest of the quote is pretty accurate though.)

So we’ve all heard that money doesn’t buy happiness. This sentiment is nothing new. But why do you think more people don’t get the clue?

There is a reason for this, and no one summarizes it better than the author, Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Howard Campbell Jr.—the main character from another of his stories, Mother Night—expounds on why poor Americans always yearn for greener pastures…

"America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves … Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters … Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue … Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times."

So as poor folk, we’re explicitly taught to be ashamed of our economic situation. And since we’re not filthy rich, we are deemed unsuccessful and subsequently we invite the wrath of pity upon ourselves. In our country, only the insanely rich are worthy of wisdom, virtue, and happiness, and everyone else can wallow in their self-inflicted poverty.

Aside from the obvious repercussions that this sentiment breeds—being a “treasure for the rich and powerful,” as Vonnegut puts it—there are other dire consequences. When people hate themselves for being poor, they will do anything to remedy the situation. And in a country where the individual is judged almost exclusively on his/her appearance, we have this thing called credit that can eradicate the shame of supposed indigence by securing all the frivolous “necessities” one could ever desire. Buy it now and pay for it later, future creditors promise. If you don’t have a house, car, fancy clothing, or jewelry? Don’t worry about it. Get yourself a credit card and stimulate that economy now! (Of course, you’ll have to pay it back later with a hefty interest charge…) But what does later have to do with now?

Awhile back, I was listening to an episode of This American Life and a couple of employees from a credit company were discussing the worsening financial situation of a lot of their clients. “We have people that tell us how they’re desperate and have no money,” one of the credit employees said. “And we look at their bank statements and they’re going to PF Changs and Ruby Tuesdays and Starbucks, 7-11. If you go to 7-11 a couple of times a week, that adds up to $50 really fast. But nobody’s thinking about that. They’re not changing their habits to adjust to a reduction in income. Instead of changing habits, they’re changing paying [their bills].”

It’s such a mind fuck. People are willing to dine out and splurge on non-essentials just to save psychological face. “I’m not poor,” they tell themselves. “If I were poor, I wouldn’t be eating out all the time, driving a car I can’t afford, and living in a house with a mortgage that I haven’t paid in months.” It’s pathetic really.

We wouldn’t have this problem if people could just look deep into their empty wallets and say, “You know, even though I can’t afford nice things, at least I’m happy. And to hell with what anyone else has to say about that!”

There’s $9.62 in my account. I ride around town on a bicycle. I live in a modest, easily affordable house. My clothes are disintegrating off my back from overuse. Opting against dining out, I make all my meals for myself. And I feel great about everything.

If wealth were measured by happiness instead of money and material possessions, I’d be among the richest people I know. But since it isn’t, I suppose I’ll have to settle for poor and happy. Either way, it’s a pretty good life.

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